John Elsom[1]

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The narratives of English theatre often tell a drab story of the early 18th century, too many doggerel tragedies and comedies without the bawdiness of the Restoration. But the years saw the arrival of three characteristic features of our theatre, as enduring as Shakespeare, – the musical, the pantomime and the start of English theatre criticism.
To suggest that they are somehow spiritually linked may seem to stretch a point too far, but that is going to be the drift of my argument. Indeed, I want to venture further by suggesting that the respect that we pay to Shakespeare and his time overshadows the strange qualities of this period from 1700 to 1730, when we can feel the tolerances and accommodations of modern British society coming into being.

What do these three have in common? The first musical, as opposed to opera or operetta, was John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera, which had a phenomenal success when it was first performed in 1728. It was a Jonathan Swift-inspired satire parodying the Italian opera, in which the gods and goddesses, swains and shepherdesses, were replaced by the whores and highwaymen in Newgate prison. The florid arias in which heroes took a long time in dying were replaced by street songs and catchy numbers that anyone could sing. The hero, the highwayman Macheath, was the James Bond of his time, the sort of person that Boswell admired and imitated in fancy dress parties.

A scene from The Beggar’s Opera (c. 1728) by William Hogarth. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., USA
A scene from The Beggar’s Opera (c. 1728) by William Hogarth. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., USA

The theatre manager, who first producedThe Beggars’ Opera, was the amazing John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, who became the first model of a modern impresario, not dependent on patronage, inherited wealth or any other source than the box office. He was an actor, whose stage name was John Lun, but his speaking voice was poor, and he became a mime and a magician. In 1716, he borrowed from Italian companies in Paris something like Commedia dell’Arte, but a poor man’s version of it, the “Harlequinade”, to which he added magic and comedy scenes, using a troupe of actors from Drury Lane.

It was the family entertainment of its time and later on in the century it borrowed fairy stories, such asCinderella, from various sources and Rich’s old role of Harlequin, which survived as the central figure until the middle of the 19th. century, was taken over by the clowns, such as Joey Grimaldi, dancers, more special effects, more comedy actors, more music hall stars and the sexual inversions of Prince Charming, played by a woman, and the Pantomime Dame, played by a man.

We have pantomimes today at Christmas in nearly every town and village in the UK and the money that they bring in to theatres is expected to cover the slack months in the spring. What do musicals and pantos have in common, apart from having John Rich as an ancestor? They both started out as parodies of continental models and behind them, you can feel a rebellion against the cultural dominance of the court of Louis XIV and of other courts in Europe. Within living memory, Britain had gone from being an autocratic monarchy to a commonwealth without a royal family and back to a monarchy and then to a sort of half-way house, a constitutional monarchy, in which the crown’s power to tax and spend was curbed by parliament. It was not yet a democracy in the modern sense of the word, and still may not be, but a step towards democracy had been taken.

London was a major trading port, a cosmopolitan centre and the place which the offices of state, as well as parliament itself, had their homes. It was a relatively new city in that the oldest, most ramshackle and dangerous parts of the town had been devastated in the great fire of London. It was becoming the first Enlightenment city. Its theatre was trying to appeal to the middle classes, deliberately not too posh, asserting its separateness from continental and aristocratic models. If Handel was staging his Italian operas at the King’s Theatre, Rich could retort with The Beggars’ Opera at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

One of the changes that had taken place was the partial abolition of censorship. It was not a complete abolition, because there were laws against sedition, profanity and libel, and in 1737, rigorous laws were passed that survived as stage censorship until 1968. But laws that required publishers to have licenses from the government before they could publish anything at all, went in 1698. The aim was to have, in John Milton’s words, an “open market in ideas”. As a result, there was an explosion of small publishers and the new city society sought its own distinctive voice. It got one, The Spectator, that appeared every day from 1711 to 1712, 555 issues, and in 1714, for 80 issues.

Joseph Addison, the Kit-cat portrait, circa 1703–1712, by Godfrey Kneller
Joseph Addison, the Kit-cat portrait, circa 1703–1712, by Godfrey Kneller

Richard Steele (1672-1729)
Richard Steele (1672-1729)

Its essays were widely read, the tone of its writing was imitated; and its style and flavour permeates British cultural journalism. Its name is retained in a quite different magazine. The editors and main contributors were Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who started a journal called The Guardian in 1713.Their essays were much admired and reprinted as models throughout the 18th century and they included the first examples of modern theatre reviewing, in that they wrote about plays and performances, praising where praise was due, blaming those who deserved blame and generally behaving as British critics are supposed to do.

How can this tone be described? It was a complicated mixture. “Mr. Spectator” himself, the eponymous author, was a man about town, who took “no practical part in life”, other than as a spectator. “He” was not a publicist. “He” was not a spokesman for the church or a political party, although might have the political views of an independent man. “He” used his passive presence to comment upon others; and much of the appeal of The Spectatoressays lies in portraits of other people, such as Sir Roger de Coverley, the bluff old boy from the Shires, dumbfounded by what went on in London. Through Sir Roger, Addison and Steele were able to mock, albeit mildly, both the fashions of the times and the stick-in-the-muds who thought that women had finally gone too far – and other subjects of similar importance.

Although their classical references might seem to us to be erudite, they are, on the whole, anti-intellectual. They do not want to be boring. “Mr. Spectator” was, in a word of the times, “clubbable”. “He” was writing for the tea houses and coffee shops, did not try to belabour the reader with morals and biblical examples, while staying on the side of the church, the royalty and the powers that be. The one thing that “Mr. Spectator” was not was revolutionary, although Addison and Steele could be ironically subversive.

Theatre criticism took its place among Mr. Spectator’s observation of pastimes. On September 10, 1714, he wrote:

The Spectator from June 7th, 1711
The Spectator from June 7th, 1711

“I look upon the play-house as a world within itself. They have lately furnished the middle region of it, with a new set of meteors in order to give the sublime to many modern tragedies. I was there last winter at the first rehearsal of the new thunder, which is much more deep and sonorous than any hitherto made use of before… Their lightnings are made to flash more briskly than heretofore; their clouds are also better furbelowed, and more voluminous, not to mention a violent storm locked up in a great chest, that is designed for the Tempest. They are also provided with above a dozen flowers of snow, which, as I am informed, are the plays of many unsuccessful poets artificially cut and shredded for that use…” a slightly catty remark from another would-be playwright.

After questioning why these effects were enjoyed by the audience but despised by some critics, Mr. Spectator enquired why some people are so scathing of popular success, striking a blow for the general public, as opposed to literary snobs. He praised the work of the ancient Greek and Roman critics, such as Aristotle and Longinus, – and Boileau among the French – and wondered why British critics did not learn from their examples. “It is our misfortune that some, who set up as professed critics among us, are so stupid, that they do not know how to put ten words together with elegance or common propriety, and withal so illiterate that they have no taste of learned languages, and therefore criticize upon old authors only at second hand.” Well, I feel the same about…

But perhaps I should not mention names. It would be unclubbable.

“Mr. Spectator”, in short, touches upon topics that are part of today’s criticism. Problems with too much scenery? Aristotle, as we all know, rated mise en scène as the least important element in the theatre, which is one reason why, when we see massive musicals, like the recent The Fellowship of the Ring at Drury Lane, we critics, who often have (like Addison) a grounding in the classics and the old humanities, tend to feel a bit snobbish about them. “Nice costumes, but can you really rhyme crazy with laser?”

Illustration by Manuel de Macedo in the journal Ocidente (1878-05-15, p.77): Scenes from the fantasy operetta Trip to the Moon.
Illustration by Manuel de Macedo in the journal Ocidente (1878-05-15, p.77): Scenes from the fantasy operetta Trip to the Moon.

Modern British criticism in the press treads a very narrow line. It wants to seem intelligent without being intellectual; informed without being academic; open-minded without being vacuous; in touch with popular opinion without being vulgar; and witty without being smart-assed. It exists within very narrow stylistic parameters. The first paragraphs of Kenneth Tynan’s reviews nearly always contained his best jokes. The dullness and mediocrity of the rest was usually overlooked. Much the same can be said for Mr. Spectator’s essays. They start brightly but fade quickly, the endemic sickness of daily journalism.

In the latter half of the 18th century and the early 19th century, British criticism became more ambitious. Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets, published in 1781, represented the beginnings of academic criticism of the Who-did-What-When-And-To -Whom variety, a useful reference work, raised to a high level by Johnson’s knowledge, wit and human insight. William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespearein 1817 established him as the greatest descriptive critic of the stage in his time, perhaps even in our history, and the full body of his work illustrated his ambitious attempt to create a critical history of the English theatre, rooted in first-hand experience of what happens in the theatre. The flowering of English criticism came a long time after Addison, Steele and Mr. Spectator.

But the Spectator tone is still around. Our modern critics too like to be clubbable, detached but not isolated, witty but not too clever, engaged but not bigoted, and as men, women or both of the town. They like to engage with their audiences in cultural banter. And behind his easy-going façade, little prejudices creep in. One is, in my view, a slight distrust of the antics that foreigners get up to. British critics do not want to be taken for provincial fools or suckers; which is why when anything foreign puzzles them, a common response is either to stay aloof or to mock. Waiting for Godot was one example, saved by Tynan’s review. Another was The Water Hen (Kantor’s first production in the U.K. of a Witkazy play) and yet another, An evening of Theatrical Rubbish, conceived by Jan Fabre. Ian Herbert and I have both found it difficult to engage British theatre critics in what is happening elsewhere.

Illustration by L. Freire on A Night at the Colyseum in the journal Ocidente (1890-12-21, p.285)
Illustration by L. Freire on A Night at the Colyseum in the journal Ocidente (1890-12-21, p.285)

Just as The Beggars’ Opera and pantomimes parodied genres from abroad, so the response to foreign works can be defensive and skeptical. The World Theatre Seasons in the 1970s and the BITE seasons at the Barbican today have done something to remove this instinctive response from dedicated theatre goers, but it still persists. If you look back at the Spectator essays, which cover a wider ground than the stage, you will notice that how these suspicions spread into many little prejudices and assumptions that we would now call racist – and sexist and chauvinist. You can feel how the women were being barred from gentlemen’s clubs, and Jews from golf clubs, and Catholics from succession, and blacks from white residential areas. To be clubbable meant that some were regarded as not clubbable. They might not have the right tie, manners or colour.
Such small prejudices might conceal bigger ones. We have the nightmare of the Holocaust in our minds. For those who feel that they are victims of British snobbery, the Spectator contains too many examples of social habits that have humiliated them, dressed up as jokes, observations and ironies. There is something dangerously secure and free of doubt abut the clubbable Englishman. Is this the tip of an iceberg of prejudice? The first signs of a gathering storm? Anything else ecological?

Perhaps, but there is another way of looking it. If you compare the theatre of the early 18thcentury with Jacobean tragedy or even the angry young men of the 1960s, the big hatreds are not there. Sir Roger is neither a Falstaff nor a wicked baron. Mr. Spectator made fun of foreigners. He did not make fodder out of them. Women were not put up for auction: they were not beaten or mutilated. During this time of constitutional change, the violence and brutality that we associate with the religious wars of the previous century are moderated into milder forms of prejudice. Prejudices may be there, but the urbane and clubbable tone stifles the rage. You might even see the signs of a civilizing process.

Theatre at a Fair
Theatre at a Fair

Well, let us not get too carried away. The decades ahead were the ones of British imperialist expansion – Britain rules the waves, that sort of thing! But it could be argued that the characteristics of British imperialism were influenced by the social confidence of the time, the sense that the English had got the indiscipline of the past ages under control, revolutions were out of fashion and the constitutional monarchy managed to reconcile the best of the past with the hopes for the future. Complacent? Yes, but recognizable today.

When Addison was on the point of death, he invited his sons to his bedside, and said: “This is how a Christian gentleman should die!” And died. We do not know the reaction of his sons, except that they left the room very quickly.

When our much loved and eminently clubbable critic, Michael Billington, lays down his quill for the last time, I imagine something similar happening in the Guardian offices. The junior staff will gather around his desk and he will say something to the effect that this is how a political correct and leftward leaning spectator of human affairs should pass on the baton to the next generation. And he will look around and try to pass it on, but, alas, there may be very few people around who will want to receive it.


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[1] John Elsom is a writer, university teacher and company director. He has held posts with Paramount Pictures and the BBC, broadcast widely and taught in universities in Britain and the U.S., including the Department of Arts Management at City University in London, where he started the first MA in Arts Criticism. He has written for many magazines and journals world-wide, including on a regular basis, and was the President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) (1985-1992), a UNESCO-affiliated non-governmental organization, and is now its Honorary President. His books include Theatre Outside London,The History of the National Theatre, Erotic Theatre, Post-War British Theatre Criticism, Cold War Theatre, Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?

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The History of Criticism: English